Thursday, April 22, 2021

Ranking the Arenas of Hockey East From A Broadcaster's Point of View

OK, it's time for a fun topic. In this latest post, I thought I would take a look at the arenas of Hockey East and rank them from 1-11 from a broadcasters perspective. By no means does a lower ranking on this list mean that I dislike the arena in any way- I'm quite fond of all 11 arenas, to be perfectly honest- but lists are always fun and it would be a fun way to share my knowledge and experiences. I'm ranking the arenas in terms of the following criteria (of course, assuming pre-COVID normalcy), in no particular order:  






OK so here we go. 


Admittedly, this ranking will probably change when I make my next trip up to Burlington due to the renovations going on up there, but for now we'll start the list here. There's a lot to like about "the Gut"- Catamounts tickets have always been a tough ticket to get, especially when the team is playing well. Fans really get into the games up there, and it's a passionate fan base. The Gut gets an A for atmosphere. Parking is always excellent, I usually park in the garage right next to the arena for free, so that's a great thing. Where the Gut has been a challenge for me in the past has been the sightlines- the broadcast location was such that you were situated on one of the blue lines, so that when the puck was down at the opposite end of the arena you would have to lean your head over and crane your neck so you can see the play. The press area is now on the opposite side of where we've been in the past, so I'm not sure if that will improve that sightline, as I haven't seen the renovations for myself yet. They also have installed a new center ice scoreboard at the Gut, so the renovations are in full swing. Concessions are standard fare for a college hockey rink. You also, in the past, needed to climb up a small ladder to get up to your broadcast station.  


The XCEL Center in Hartford (formerly known as the Hartford Civic Center) is the former home of the NHL's Hartford Whalers, and soon it will be the former home of UCONN men's hockey, as they are working on a new arena down in Storrs, on campus. I've talked to many broadcasters about the XCEL over the years and I can honestly say that there are mixed opinions about the place. Some broadcasters don't like it and some broadcasters do. Count me as one of the broadcasters who likes the place. A lot. For one thing, you are doing the game from high above, in the rafters of the building. Exactly where Chuck Kaiton used to broadcast Whalers games. Many don't like the height up there, but I love it. There is no better way to see plays develop than being up high. The place is decorated with Whalers banners. It just brings back so many memories for me. So, I love the sightlines. And there's plenty of space to spread out there and do my work. Getting up there though is tricky. I park in a hotel adjacent to the arena, then enter the building, go into the lobby, take the elevator down to the loading dock, then take another elevator up to the catwalk. So it's a hike and a haul, especially when you're lugging equipment. We usually get fed by UConn (box lunch) so I appreciate their thoughtfulness. 


An iconic building, Conte Forum has seen some historic moments over the years. I've had some memorable broadcasts there over the years. Again, lots to like here. I love the booth at BC- plenty of room to spread out and work. And as far as tech (IT people)go - BC has the best in the league by far. Every time I go there, there is always someone there that comes by and checks in to make sure we can get on the air. Great stuff. They are a class operation at BC. The food is great for us at BC- a well stocked media room where we can eat and chat before the game. Parking is now a paid procedure now- I used to park over at the football stadium for free and walk in to Conte- but that option no longer exists, but there is a garage close by, so no problem there. Conte can be confusing in terms of getting to the press box- there are two elevators- one for the north side and one for the south side- and it's tricky to get to the right one- I still to this day haven't memorized how to get to the elevator I need, but I always find it. It's a long walk to get to the top too- I always appreciate the exercise I get there. Probably the biggest drawback is the sightlines in the booth. From the visiting radio booth, there is an obstructed view, so we can't see the auxiliary scoreboards without really craning our necks. But it's always a great experience there at BC. 


Coming in at #8 is our home rink at Merrimack, Lawler Rink. Like Vermont, the school underwent major renovations to the arena and made massive improvements. And it shows. The atmosphere at Merrimack is amazing when the building is full. It's a rink on the smaller side but when the place gets packed it's a lot of fun. Another thing I like about Lawler is how close you are to the action. You are right on top of things and I love that. A+ for atmosphere, no question. And the food is probably the best in the league, served up by the Blue Line Club. Parking is excellent too. Free and I never have a problem. Given the size of the rink you would expect a smaller cramped press box and that's true at Lawler. It can get crowded. Also, from our normal spot on press row we are set up at one of the blue lines, so we have to look down ice, similar to Vermont, to see the action. And we must stand to do the game- sitting is not possible. 


The Tsongas Center in Lowell is a beautiful facility that formerly housed an AHL franchise, the Lowell Devils. It's a spectacular facility, inside and out. Extremely well laid out, it's got a lot of positives. Great press room for food, always convenient parking, and the press box is a breeze to get to. Take the elevator up to the concourse and you're right there. The concessions for the fans are great too. River Hawk fans love their team and they get loud. Great atmosphere. The sightlines are excellent for us- directly at center ice. We're on the second tier of the press box, right in the middle, so sometimes we have to stand to see the action a little better, but you can't beat the view. If there is a downside, it is that it can be tight quarters in the press box in Lowell. The press box was remodeled not long ago and as a function of the changes, the press box area was changed in terms of dimensions, but its not a big deal at all. I always enjoy going to Tsongas and reigniting the Merrimack Valley rivalry with UML. 


Located on the outskirts of Providence, minutes from Route 146, sits Schneider Arena, home of the Providence Friars. Like Vermont and Merrimack, Schneider has undergone major upgrades, spearheaded by head coach Nate Leaman. It's big enough to be a legit college hockey arena yet small enough to still have that homey, comfort close to the action feel. Schneider has excellent sightlines with lots of room to spread out. I always love that. And it's one of the few places where I can be seated throughout the game and not have to stand. Providence is a winning school in hockey, and the Friar faithful are always supportive. Parking is excellent- there is a garage right next to the arena. The press box is easily accessible. We always get fed before games. I can't speak to the concession stands there because I've never patronized them. Lots to like about Schneider. It's a great place to watch a game. 


About the only issue with the Whittemore Center now is that is an "aging" building relative to other arenas in Hockey East- we had a game postponed a couple of years ago due to a malfunction with the ice compression system there.... but other than that I feel it is a great experience working there. Our view is spectacular- right at center ice, a nice enclosed broadcast booth, plenty of privacy. Press box accessibility is a snap- you walk in the doors of the building and you are on the concourse. Couldn't be any easier. The good folks at UNH always have pre-game food for us, usually pizza. Concessions historically have been really good at UNH.... I remember getting clam chowder and mac and cheese at one time. Parking is OK, but not the best in the league- I usually park in the lot at the bottom of the stairs and walk up a flight to the front door. Not a huge issue.. it's a lot easier walking down then up. UNH fans also engage in one of the unique traditions in college hockey- throwing a fish onto the ice after the first Wildcat goal of the evening. Once Whittemore gets it's facelift, it will be pretty close to perfect. 


The William J. Mullins Center is the home of the defending champions in Division 1 college hockey, the UMass Minutemen. Wait until you see the building next year, if fans are allowed back in. It will be the hottest ticket anywhere in the land. Mullins is a cavernous arena, and a multipurpose venue. Let's start with the pluses- similar to UConn, we have a great view here. When you are high up to see plays develop, it makes you a better broadcaster. So we can check off that box here. The arena is so beautifully laid out- it is so easy to navigate in its simplicity, despite being a large facility. Atmosphere? No problem, especially now coming off a championship. UMass has always been generous with pre-game food. Parking is a snap, as I always park right in front of the entrance I typically walk in. The locker rooms are easy to find. Lots of space to work, in fact I think it's the second roomiest press box in the league (scroll down to see #1). The only downside is there is no elevator to get you up to the press box- and when you're lugging equipment, it's a real workout. Not that I'm complaining, mind you- it keeps me in good shape. Steepest climb in the league. But if that's the worst thing you can say about Mullins, then all is good. Oh, and by the way, they may have the best concession stands for fans in the league. 


How can you not get excited to do a game at the world's oldest arena? The original home of the Boston Bruins, Matthews Arena has been around since the 20's. Matthews has also been the beneficiary of significant upgrades- one of them being the Grinold press box. What I love about the press box at NU is that you are literally right on top of the ice there- even closer than Merrimack, and you're at center ice. In fact, I think you are closer to the action here than any other arena in the league. All you have to do is look around the arena and you can be spellbound. Extremely easy to navigate. No elevator needed. Atmosphere? You're in the Dog House. Nuff said. NU has one of the most rabid fan bases in the country. You'll never have a dull game there. Add to that the new jumbotron scoreboard , a real monster that hangs over center ice, and you've really got something. A downside to that is that it is very loud. Parking can be a challenge. I typically park in the garage across the street, and it costs $25. Tax write-off, so ultimately it's no big deal. They usually have food pre-game, and a concession area for fans in the lobby with things like pizza and chicken. NU will always be a treasure to watch a game.


Coming in at #2, is venerable Alfond Arena, in Orono, Maine. It is without question one of the most iconic arenas in the country. What is lacks in shortcomings it more than makes up for in atmosphere. I don't care what Maine's record is, that place is always sold out under normal circumstances. Black Bear fans are loud, boisterous and energetic. They love their hockey up there. You have to love and respect their passion. So for my money, Maine has the best atmosphere in the league. I LOVE doing games at Alfond. It makes the long drive up there worth it. The arena is small and easy to navigate. Parking is easy, right out front. You walk in the arena, turn right, look up and there's your press box view. Minimal stairs to climb. Maine used to have a baked potato bar at Alfond, and I hope they eventually bring that back. You could get a potato and then load it up with all the fixings. My wife loved it. Now, the drawbacks- the press area is small and tight. And we have an obstructed view off to our right- it's difficult to see in the corner. But it adds to the charm of the building. I love coming here- and then stopping at the Maine Diner on the way home. And now for # 1: 


Here's # 1 on my list- BU's Agganis Arena. Love the place. Where do I start? How about a nice roomy press box with loads of room and privacy. Very easy to navigate with an elevator that takes you up to the concourse. BU's concessions are right up there with UMass for the  best in the league- I personally love the crab cakes they have there. Parking is easy and convenient- I park in the garage under the building- there is a cost- about $10, but you can't beat the convenience. The fans are always into it there, as you would expect, being a Boston school. The sightlines are excellent even though we're not technically at center ice, but no matter- you can see everything. I really get an NHL feel at Agganis, and I've done some big games there- including a playoff OT win for Merrimack back in the days of Jack Parker. So I put BU right up there at # 1. 

I tip my hat to all 11 rinks! They all do a great job, and I enjoy all of them in their own way. 

Monday, April 19, 2021

Red Gendron (1957-2021)

 The world of college hockey lost a giant of a man on April 9th with the passing of Dennis (Red) Gendron, head men's ice hockey coach at the University of Maine. I was out for a walk that day when I received a text message from Mike Machnik, my radio partner at Merrimack, informing me that Red had left us. Red passed at age 63, on a golf course in Maine. I naturally was shocked and saddened to hear this. 

How do you describe the life of a man who was so full and rich? It's not an easy thing to do. But for sure Red's life was one to be celebrated. He was a genius of a man. He was so well read, so well versed in everything. He could have easily won a lot of money on Jeopardy if he ever would have competed. And he wanted to share that knowledge- rumor has it that he'd quiz people on subjects. 

When it came to hockey, Red's pedigree spoke for itself. He had his name engraved on the Stanley Cup- twice- with the New Jersey Devils organization, and coached pretty much everywhere. He made his mark in Hockey East, with UMass and then of course Maine. One of the things I loved about Red was his storytelling ability. He would have been a terrific baseball broadcaster. Red had been in so many places and visited so many towns he could regale you. Many's the night we talked to him and he had a great story to tell. I remember the time I told him that my wife and I visited Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor. I told him where we visited and he amplified the story by telling us his experiences of his times there. It made me want to go back, and we are going back for the 4th of July. 

Which brings me to my favorite Red Gendron story. We were up in Orono for a weekend series against the Black Bears. Friday and Saturday night games. On the first night, I got to the arena and was setting up the radio equipment. Usually I do that first and then we go and visit with the opposing coach. (On a trip like this, I'll usually interview our coach in the hotel after the pregame meal). During the set-up for the Friday game I was grappling with some technical difficulties at Alfond Arena- I was having difficulty securing an Internet connection. Before we go and talk to the coaches, I like to insist that the set-up be completely ready, so I don't have to deal with it when we come back from the interview. It was getting to be time to go talk to Red, but I wasn't ready with the equipment set-up. So I told Mike to go on ahead and talk to Red  without me while I solved the problem, and that I would sit in with him prior to the game the next night. 

Fast forward to Saturday. Of course, now, the Internet problem is solved because now my computer automatically connects from the night before. So after setting up the equipment, I now accompany Mike to visit Red prior to Saturday night's game. Keep in mind that I had never met Red before. This was his first season at Maine. So we walk into Red's office. Red greets Mike and then he looks at me. "Nice of you to join us, what was the matter last night, you couldn't #*@!$ come by last night? " I was stunned- for a moment I didn't know what to say or do. I felt my face getting flushed. I don't always have the best responses to conflict, and I started to think that this might not go too well for me. Then, almost instantaneously, and probably sensing my discomfort, Red broke into a big smile and extended his hand to me. That was it- our friendship began right there. 

I remember telling Red about my Dad and his Alzheimer's diagnosis. He was genuinely concerned and provided me with emotional support. He genuinely cared about people, and I've read many times that as much as Red cared about his hockey teams, and particularly his team at Maine, he was more concerned with ensuring that his players became better people. That was so important to him. 

Red passed away in between games of the Frozen Four. I was moved by Coach Greg Carvel's thoughts about him, and I just know Red was smiling down on the Minutemen as they captured their first championship. 

My thoughts are with Red's family, Maine hockey, and every one who knew and loved him. From Boston to Berlin, NH, to Orono, the world is a sadder place without him. Next time we visit Orono, he will cross out minds and it won't be the same. I am a better man for having known him. Rest in Peace, Coach.